Understanding the 2 Types of Trauma to Heal Addiction
According to Dr. Gabor Mate, underneath all addictive behaviors lies a deep, unresolved trauma wound.1 One thing that helped me start releasing the shame I carry for struggling with addiction was learning about the two types of trauma: "big T" and "little t" trauma. Big T trauma is related to an acute, severe event like sexual assault or going to war. While little t trauma accumulates over time in response to things like active shooter drills or a childhood steeped in diet culture.2 These two types of trauma are important to understand.
How Not Knowing About the 2 Types of Trauma Interfered with My Healing Journey
After my second driving under the influence (DUI) charge in 2015, instead of jail, I went to three different state-funded 12 Step-based inpatient drug and alcohol rehab facilities back to back to back. Each week, as a part of group therapy, one of my roommates would share the story of their life. Week after week, I heard horrifyingly explicit stories of big T trauma. When it came time to share my story, I always froze. I couldn't shake the feeling that I shouldn't have gotten addicted because I didn't experience any big T trauma. At that point, I didn't know about the wo types of trauma.
Frankly, I grew up with a lot of privilege. My upbringing sheltered me from the world's harsh realities. Post-rehab, rather than healing, I berated myself for years. I created a story in my head that said I was an ungrateful, spoiled white girl who didn't have a reason to develop an addiction. Sobriety seemed impossible until I learned about little t trauma.
Understanding the 2 Types of Trauma Set Me Free
My therapist and I are currently in the messy, perhaps neverending, process of detangling my little t trauma. During childhood, I didn't know I was continuously breathing in the toxicity of fatphobia, homophobia, misogyny, perfectionism, and capitalism. I didn't know my worth as a woman did not depend upon attracting a man. I didn't know that internalizing these messages created a constant collection of little t traumas.
I also didn't know that I was autistic until last year. From a young age, I knew I was different, but I didn't have the language or the diagnosis to understand why. Being conditioned to ignore my natural neurodivergent (relating to or showing atypical neurological behavior and development, as in autism spectrum disorder or dyslexia3) state to fit into a neurotypical (relating to or showing typical neurological behavior and development4) world is lonely and exhausting. Addiction became my go-to coping mechanism because it temporarily soothed the trauma of chronic overstimulation.
Ending the cycle of addiction often requires healing an underlying trauma wound -- and the type of trauma can be little t or big t. Unraveling my little t trauma is hard work and complex. But at least now I know my trauma is valid. At least now I can release the shame I carried for struggling with addiction because I understand the nuances of big T and little t trauma.
A, C. (2019). Understanding Trauma, Addiction, and the Path to Healing: A Conversation with Gabor Maté. Be Here Now Network. https://beherenownetwork.com/understanding-trauma-addiction-and-the-path-to-healing-a-conversation-with-gabor-mate/?fbclid=IwAR2my9_Ps4w_QttQTTZKr8A_slkfOJXB1Fs_aqKR9RFyM8KULcrvZiaMup4
Know Thyself Clips. (2023, February 16). Big “T” vs Little “t” Trauma | Understanding Our Wounding - w/ Dr. Gabor Maté [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0EPTgEDtyU
Neurodivergent. (n.d.). In Dictionary.com. Retrieved July 4, 2023, from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/neurodivergent
Neurotypical. (n.d.). In Dictionary.com. Retrieved July 4, 2023, from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/neurotypical
Cronkright, K. (2023, June 26). Understanding the 2 Types of Trauma to Heal Addiction, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, December 8 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/debunkingaddiction/2023/6/understanding-the-2-types-of-trauma-to-heal-addiction